There are certain characteristics which I possess which, although I might like to think they are inherent to me, are in reality inherent to my autism. They are attributes which I use to make up for my deficits in other areas. But until recently, I never realized how my deficits could also be attributes. I never realized that meltdowns could be an advantage. I never realized that sometimes, being weird and not following social norms could not just be a negative – they can be a positive, too.
Life is weird. Here’s what happened.
I went grocery shopping. I have yet to visit a Trader Joe’s with an adequate parking lot and this one is no exception, but I like their stores and there are certain products there, like olive oil, that I would never dream of buying anywhere else. I very carefully slid my car into a spot, noting that the car to the left of me had parked an inch or two over the yellow line, intruding on my space. I mentally grumbled about stupid parkers and opened my door very carefully. I sucked in my stomach and reached awkwardly to get my purse, very careful to not touch the other car. I can recall this because I have an autistic memory and that memory is really good.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, I was done with my errands and returned to my car. However, this time, a man stood between my car and the car to the left.
“You damaged my car!” he said.
“No, I didn’t.” I replied.
“Yes, you did!”
I peered closely to where he was pointing. I saw nothing, not a scratch or a dent or a pockmark. I recalled getting out of the car and how careful I was. I began to get very, very confused, and meanwhile, Car Guy was raising his voice and saying how he needed my information, how his car cost X amount, how it was freshly painted that day, it was brand new, just picked up, I owed him money, I owed him this and that. I began to panic. I thought about points on my license and the $500 deductible I have which I had no way of paying and my insurance going up. I thought about going to court and maybe jail.
My autistic brain and soul roared loudly in the face of this injustice. I knew I had not hit his car. Why did he keep saying I had? In my logical, orderly world, people do not accuse others of doing things that they did not do. But maybe I just wasn’t seeing the dent he swore was there. I knew I was clumsy, maybe I had damaged his car.
In the face of his anger, I was terrified. What did he want from me? I didn’t know and I couldn’t figure it out. Car Guy was not following any social script that I had ever learned. So I did what most white people do when confronted with such a situation: I called 911. I retreated to the store and retrieved the manager, who came outside and stood with me as we waited.
I should mention here that Car Guy was black. I’m not sure of any other characteristics except that he was male and black, and from the moment that I dialed for the police I was absolutely positive that I had signed his death warrant. Because if I have learned anything from the Black Lives Matter movement, it is that cops kill black people for no reason, even in small, ultra- liberal cities such as the one I live in.
The Trader Joe’s employees were very nice. They waited with me for the few minutes until the cops arrived. By this time I was in full meltdown mode. I was crying hard, flapping, and biting myself because I did not understand why I was being accused of doing something that I was 100% positive I did not do. Did you go to jail for dinging a car? Would the police shoot first and ask later? How could I afford to replace his brand new car anyway?
The police, as it turned out, drew no weapons. They did repeatedly ask me if I needed to go to the hospital and I said no, I had high-functioning autism* and I was having a meltdown, not a heart attack. I managed to retrieve my insurance information and license, and Car Guy and I exchanged information. The cop peered at Car Guy’s door. The cop admitted that there could possibly be some sort of mark there, and encouraged me to take a picture or two. I did. I called a church friend who lived nearby and she was on her way over, as I knew there was no way I could deal with this situation by myself. I was still crying hard and beginning to have trouble breathing.
“I didn’t do it!” I kept saying. Because I didn’t.
Car Guy was clearly sick of this whole thing. He took the piece of paper with my information on it, tore it up with the effect of tearing up a death sentence, and said, “I can’t stand how you’re crying. You’re crying too much. I’ll forget it, okay?”
A few minute later, he had gotten in his car and gone, and my friend arrived. The cops asked again if I wanted to go to the hospital. Again I said no. The cop explained very calmly that nothing was going to happen now, it was all over, and he hinted at something I did not understand. He said that there was no way I could have hit his car where he said I did with my car door, because the angles did not match up.
The cops left. It was starting to rain. I sat in my friend’s car and cried. What had I done wrong? Why was I accused of doing something I had not done?
It was then that my friend explained to me what the police had been hinting at. It was, apparently, a known scam. Someone parks over the line, then accuses the stranger of damaging their car. Since most insurances have high deductibles, Car Scam Guy assumes that the person will just want to get home and will offer the guy cash to make the problem go away. Car Scam Guy wasn’t after putting me in jail. He didn’t want insurance information or to know my name or where I lived. He wanted an easy $20 or $50. He thought that he could easily intimidate a plain-looking woman who was probably eager to get home at the end of the day.
Of course, Car Scam Guy had no way of knowing that I was autistic. He had no way of knowing that my brain and my body would go haywire at being accused of a crime that I did not commit. He didn’t know that with my memory I could recall getting out of my car, and that my logic demands evidence and proof of wrongdoing. He also didn’t expect my meltdown to be as severe as it was or as long. I called for help, and help came, because I knew that I could not deal with the situation on my own. When he saw that I clearly had advocates on my side, like my friend and the Trader Joe’s employees, he backed down.
I threw him off his script. He knew that he had no evidence, that he would lose in court, in insurance, in whatever. He knew this – but I didn’t. I only knew that I was terrified and certain that I had done no wrong.
My friend said that in general, I should not call the police on black people, because it can be dangerous. But this situation was different. Car Guy was directly confronting me. He was unfairly asserting that I had committed a crime (I actually don’t know if scratching someone’s car is a crime. In my mind it is.) I had few resources at my disposal, and was losing my ability to communicate clearly. Under the circumstances, I did the okay thing. Under the circumstances, it all worked out okay. There is no Peace 911. There is only an Emergency 911.
In the end, when the Logical, Emotional Autistic met the Scammer, the Scammer lost, not due to lack of effort on his part, but because I did not know the standard script for dealing with this type of situation. My meltdown, something of which I have always been terribly ashamed of, ended up working in my favor because Car Guy did not expect me to be so emotional or to keep on being so emotional. He had no idea that he had rocked my foundation of justice and goodwill in other people. He just knew that I was weird, I was not giving him what he wanted, and I had people on my side. So he fled, probably the best thing he could have done.
Thinking it over, his story from the beginning did not make sense. It had been pouring, vomiting even, buckets of rain for most of the day. Who gets their car painted on such a day? And who gets their car painted on the day they pick it up from the dealer? And the price he was quoting me – $27,000 – seemed rather low for a brand new car. My used car was over half that. Logically, he didn’t make sense. Logically, I should have known it was a scam. But equally logically, it never occurred to me that it was.
In the end, my memory, sense of justice and logic, and my meltdown equaled him giving up his scam. My autistic self, the part of myself that I freely admit I dislike the most, saved the day. I do not know if Car Guy will try the scam again, but I am willing to say that if he does, he might choose his targets more carefully. I am very, very glad that the incident did not escalate into violence, but I still have no idea what to do the next time I have a public crisis with a person of color.
I cannot imagine living without autism, because it is in every cell of my body and brain and it makes me who I am. Until this incident, I thought it made me a lesser, or at the very most an equal, person. Now, I see that it may indeed mean something more. It means that I am less resistant to other’s scams, that my logical brain and excellent memory can and will save the day, that even meltdowns have their uses sometimes.
Now, if you’ll excuse me. My logical brain may have done some great things, but it still won’t solve the problem of my cleaning my room.
*As a rule in my advocacy work I do not use the terms high and low functioning, as I believe that they are largely meaningless and take away from the shared sense of community. However, I have found that there are 2 groups where I need to make an exception to this rule: when dealing with police and when dealing with doctors. It makes communication much easier because it ensures that they see me as a competent person having a hard time, and also lets them know that I am my own legal guardian, medical decision maker, etc.